At yet another Tuesday night at the Living Room on New York Citya€™s Lower East Side, a performer in John Platta€™s monthly On Your Radar series mesmerized an audience.
The notes rained steady like a metronome, the bass strings rock-solid and the treble, bell-like. He finished his set, and the audience rose to its feet, giving him an ovation that seemed longer and more fervent than the usual appreciative applause regularly awarded by monthly On Your Radar attendees. Ia€™d made a brief acquaintance with his work back in the mid-a€™90s, when his song a€?Irelanda€? hit the airwaves. A phone conversation a week later would reveal that what Greg called a€?boringa€? turned out to be quite a roller coaster ride as he was pursuing his craft. Although he had a band, he wanted to go to school, so he enrolled at the University of Kansas. In 1980, a a€?benchmarka€? year, Greg moved to New York City, to make or break it as a performing songwriter. Although he played solo, he was a€?looking for a banda€? and sought out guys who were a€?fun to play with.a€? After about two years of different lineups, he certainly found one. Grega€™s solo and co-written work form a treasure-trove of great listening a€” a desert-island collection, which, in my case, according to iTunes, amounts to about five-and-a-half hours.
Once people dig into Grega€™s body of recorded work, the reaction usually is, a€?Why isna€™t this guy (take your pick) bigger a€¦ more well-known a€¦ hugea€¦?a€? While we mention a variety of lyrics and instrumental effects, the anchor for everything is Grega€™s voice, a dense baritone that reaches high notes with ease and packs emotion into every line. The live album Between a House and a Hard Place (2002) will give listeners a sample of Grega€™s sense of humor.
On The Williamsburg Affair (2009), Greg covers Neil Younga€™s a€?Wrecking Balla€? that Emmy Lou Harris had success with on her Daniel Lanois-produced album of that name.
Sam half sings, half speaks in a gently sand-blasted drawl, and it took until 2006 for people to start taking notice.
In 1986, a friend asked Sam, then 32, if he wanted to join him on a trip to the mountains of Peru. Part of Sama€™s ability to focus on the drama within the lives of ordinary people is his small-town upbringing.
During that time, Sam played guitar (right-handed, then) in bars for fun and to meet people, particularly pretty girls.
Still in a panic mode, he felt driven, in a nebulous way, needing to recover what he had lost. He suffered phobias, always seeking to keep objects between himself and large store windows, fearing shards of glass that might be hurled by an explosion. Looking back, he realizes that he was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In 1998, his sister, musician Chris Baker-Davies, made a record, Southern Wind, and included some of Sama€™s early songs.
As one reviewer put it so aptly: a€?Therea€™s a conspiracy between Sam Baker and his studio production team to break your heart. If those of us living in the New York metropolitan area are lucky, more venue operators here will put this brilliant songwriter to work and wea€™ll see a lot more of him. Sam Bakera€™s awareness and appreciation of the beauty and detail in lifea€™s moments extend to his photography skills. Clad in a black turtleneck, Sam Baker peers out from the cover of his debut album Mercy, released in 2004. Somewhere in the almost three decades since his near-destruction, in order to move forward, he managed to find some forgiveness for the Shining Path.
Ia€™ve had my favorites among the more contemporary performing songwriters -- Greg Brown comes most readily to mind -- but, for sheer longevity and ability to cover the big three in subject matter -- social commentary, satire, and personal relationships -- there just isna€™t anyone in his league.
If you were to dream about an American everymana€¦ someone with the ability to verbalize every quality needed to uphold the ideals of democracy, then demonstrate it to the masses, this would be your guy. Wea€™d normally cover the artista€™s life story in an interview, but Tom has put it all down in print. Through high school, in an area where country music was king, it seemed that he was the only person who liked folk music.
After a brief, unsuccessful stint in graduate school, Tom followed an impulse he now derides and joined the Army.
After his discharge from the Army, he was sitting in the Gaslight Cafe and was prodded to audition for an opening in the Chad Mitchell Trio.
Tom had begun working on and off at The Gaslight after his discharge, beginning a 9-month run on the 4th of July weekend in 1962. In January of 1963, he got what he calls, a€?the biggest break of my life.a€? It was while he was playing at the Gaslight that he met Midge Cummings, the woman who would become his wife. In spite of Toma€™s prodigious songwriting ability, he watched others get record contracts while he went without. Our observation of Toma€™s a€?deana€? of songwriters status is, of course, not without precedent. In 1963, just before Tom married Midge, he got his first invitation to sing at the Newport Folk Festival. After the British tour, with stops in Paris and Cannes, Tom and Midge returned to New York. During the 60a€™s when I was making my first attempt to join the legions of amateurs trying to play folk music, like many others, I made a€?The Last Thing On My Minda€? a part of my repertoire.
The film segments on YouTube of Tom sitting at a table with Pete Seeger, chatting about his impetus for writing a song, then singing it, are treasures.
Tom had a way to take a polarizing subject like the Vietnam War and present it in an a€?everymana€? fashion. One of his songs that I will always find haunting is a€?Crazy John,a€? written for John Lennon.
These include some songs that first saw the light of day during the 60a€™s and 70a€™s and came in handy during our current run of madness. Lyndon Johnson told the nation, have no fear of escalation, I am trying everyone to please. He ends the narrative in his songbook with these words: a€?So I teach, I write and record, I travel and perform -- all with my partner, Midge, without whom none of this would be still be happening. Ia€™ve had my favorites among the more contemporary performing songwriters -- Greg Brown comes most readily to mind -- but, for sheer longevity and ability to cover the big three in subject matter -- social commentary, satire, and personal relationshipsA  -- there just isna€™t anyone in his league.
His father worked in the design department of WOR Radio, one of the sponsors of the Beatlesa€™ shows at Shea Stadium. Jim and Tom Paschetto, two other extremely talented friends, joined them to form a band, which they called The Ravioli Brothers. His material included songs by Townes Van Zant, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Happy and Artie Traum. The Greg Trooper band that evolved consisted of Greg on lead vocals and guitar, Larry Campbell on guitar, fiddle and mandolin, Greg Shirley on bass harmony vocals and Walter Thompson on drums.
Although he moved back to New York in 2008, most of his recorded output has been from Nashville. He can shift, mid-note, into a higher range for greater emphasis or break into a yodel if a Hank Williams cover demands it. Its blistering attack of chiming guitar chords and steady tom-tom beat take me back to 1957. It kicks off with a€?Nothina€™ But You.a€? This one chugs through with the urgency it needs to express a guya€™s return to the woman he regrets leaving behind. During the intro strumming of a€?Ia€™m So French,a€? we can only wonder whata€™s happening when the audience laughs as he says, a€?Ia€™m recording here! Ita€™s also not possible to convey the warmth and self-effacing humor of his live performances.

Sam, an outdoor-loving, whitewater river guide, said a€?Sure.a€? After hiking ice-capped peaks for six days, they wanted to see Machu Picchu, so they went to Cuzco and got on the tourist train to get there.
In the wake of the explosion, he couldna€™t walk, and the back of his left hand had a channel-like hollow blown out of it. Hearing his songs played by others made him want to push further, to really learn the craft of songwriting. Wilkins told Sam he knew how he should sound and arranged for Sam to visit Nashville, his recording base.
I saw him perform the song a€?Mennonitea€? from that album in 2013 at a house concert at Kathryn_space in Manhattana€™s East Village. In a€?Ditch,a€? wea€™re treated to a peek inside the mind of a man who lays pipe and is grateful for the work. He felt driven (and still does) to make sense of why his life was spared and why the boy he was talking with died in the blast.
Between the covers of his songbook, Tom Paxton, The Honor of Your Company, is a treasure trove of stories and photographs from his childhood and his career.
When his dada€™s health began to fail, for his convalescence, the family moved to Wickenberg, Arizona, a locus for dude ranches.
He first heard a€?Shenandoaha€? from the Fred Waring singers Even in that a€?dressed-upa€? version, it drove straight to his core.
It wasna€™t until he got to the University of Oklahoma, that he discovered other classmates who shared his musical tastes. While stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he whiled away the boring hours in a clerk typist class writing his first commercially viable song, a€?The Marvelous Toy.a€? While stationed at Fort Dix, he began visiting the clubs and cafes in Greenwich Village on weekends, crashing at the apartment of a former classmate. He won the slot, but it lasted only a week when his voice didna€™t blend well with the other two. With no record contract and not much money, initially the apartment was threadbare, with almost no furniture. After four years, his manager, the legendary Harold Leventhal, convinced Electraa€™s Jac Holzman to listen to Tom.
The workshops were hosted by Pete, who joined Tom on a€?Ramblina€™ Boy,a€? a real thrill for Tom. The folk clubs there were really clubs with memberships, not just commercial establishments that, in New York, might be nearly empty on a Monday. Along with others making it in folk, the college circuit opened up a new and better source of income than clubs.
Of course, it would also speak reams to any college kid who wanted to wrap its meaning around his own scared, searching existence. Pete, the standard-bearer of the first American folk wave welcomes Tom, the most literate of the newer generation. The tragedy of a€?Jimmy Newman,a€? for anyone ready to listen, reached across the gulf between the a€?longhairsa€? and their parents. For those who attempt to run their con game on the American populace, Tom Paxton watches, ready to pounce and skewer the miscreants. Though it isna€™t really war, I am sending 50,000 more, to help save Vietnam from Vietnamese.
Tom has kept his touring at around 40 shows per year, so ita€™s a good idea to catch him any chance you have. He first heard a€?Shenandoaha€? from the Fred Waring singersA  Even in that a€?dressed-upa€? version, it drove straight to his core. The tragedy of a€?Jimmy Newman,a€?A  for anyone ready to listen, reached across the gulf between the a€?longhairsa€? and their parents. After nearly a year, Greg moved back to New Jersey for a short while and then went to Lawrence, Kan. Around 1979, Jim Paschetto moved to Lawrence and joined Grega€™s band and the idea of writing original material took serious hold.
Campbell, whoa€™s played with Dylan, gets our attention, but anyone in that kind of company would need to be good.
One article states that he was writing for Nashville publishers even while living in New York his first time around. The first two albums, Everywhere (1992) and Noises In The Hallway (1996), are out of print and can only be bought as used CDs from Amazon at this point. Ia€™m skipping ahead of a few favorites to get to the track that ends the album, a€?Ia€™ll Keep It With Mine,a€? a Dylan cover that makes a wonderful honky-tonk slow dance. After a couple of listens, I shared it with my wife and she identified it as a perfect Cajun two-step. Critics are saying that this album is yet another wonder in the series of great Trooper releases. Sitting in a small compartment, two abreast, a German couple opposite him and their teenaged son next to him, Sam took no notice of the red rucksack on the shelf above the head of the boya€™s mother seated diagonally across from him. A pilot rest stop was scheduled on the way, but a young girla€™s mortal injuries caused the flight to proceed directly to San Antonio so her family could see her and she could have her last rites. He also wrote a few love songs, but, as with many a budding songwriter, these were mundane, a€?I love you, you love me, you dona€™t love mea€? affairs. He told one interviewer: a€?The big things in my life have encouraged me to look at the small things.
It was real loud a€” there were trucks going by, people were eating and they were dropping plates and stuff. Wilkins and co-producer Tim Lorsch recorded Sama€™s voice, guitar and harmonica on a dozen originals, then layered background instruments and vocals to create Sama€™s brilliant 2004 debut, Mercy. However, the most affecting of these, from Pretty World, may be a€?Broken Fingers,a€? which he performed live on Harrisa€™s show, a song in memory of that German boy: Forget his face?
His cracked, raspy vocal rides the scalpel-sharp quicksilver combination of pedal steel and fiddle. Larger, more viewable versions of these photographs (and many more, plus his paintings) can be found on the blog page of his website. We cana€™t possibly include the myriad of experiences he relates or capture the range of wry humor, but will hit some of the high points. When most of us were young, many of us had dreams of being firemen, soldiers anda€¦ cowboys.
He and his friends would borrow albums by Josh White, Theodore Bikel and Oscar Brand and share the job of transcribing the lyrics.
He got to hear acts like Ed McCurdy (an early hero), The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Josh White and Len Chandler. Tom OKa€™d the use of his song a€?My Doga€™s Bigger Than Your Dog,a€? for a dog food commercial. It was a thrill, even though that first time he was only slated to perform at two afternoon workshops. Night after night, even Mondays, when Tom played, the club members packed the rooms (sometimes upstairs at a pub).
What other songwriter could write: a€?Ita€™s a lesson too late for the learnina€™ made of sand, made of sanda€¦In a wink of an eye my soul is turnina€™a€¦ in your hand, in your handa€¦a€? Ita€™s fingerstyle patterns were perfect for a beginner learning new licks. Seeing Pete join Tom on a€?Ramblina€™ Boy,a€? playing banjo and harmonizing in his high tenor, is a gift to all those who couldna€™t be there at Toma€™s first Newport Festival. As an injured soldier waits to ship out for home, he continues to entreat his unmoving friend lying in the next bed to, a€?Get up, Jimmy Newmana€¦ youa€™ve only to open your eyes,a€? we know his friend is dead.
His ignorance is met, first by an ultra-hip Captaina€™s, a€?Wassa matter witchoo, baybee?a€? and a€?Waddya think you been sittin on? Tom still recalls the shock, fear and anger.A  Not long afterward, he got his first stringed instrument, a ukulele.

Night after night, even Mondays, when Tom played, the club members packed the rooms (sometimes upstairs at a pub).A  His album, Ramblina€™ Boy had preceded him there and people knew the songs.
Seeing Pete join Tom on a€?Ramblina€™A  Boy,a€? playing banjo and harmonizing in his high tenor, is a gift to all those who couldna€™t be there at Toma€™s first Newport Festival. I was starting to develop a direction and I liked lyric-based folk-rock.a€? Bob Dylana€™s influence crept higher. The track is so amazingly strong that you might cut in on somebody with his girlfriend at the roadhouse, plead temporary insanity and not get your head stove in. Youa€™ll get a taste if you go to YouTube and type in a€?Greg Trooper,a€? but thata€™s only a taste.
Texas barbeque, Ia€™m so French!A  We also get to hear him do a€?Ireland,a€? in the only version I have at the moment until I can pick up a copy of Everywhere. I felt every room I walked in, every car I rode in, every plane I flew in, was going to blow up. The biggest push came from Morlixa€™s leverage with influential British disc jockey Bob Harris, who played it on his national radio show. In 1956, he got a second-hand Gibson guitar for Christmas and it accelerated his growth as a guitarist. Although he took some teasing for a€?selling out,a€? he managed to furnish the apartment with the money. The first album, Ramblina€™ Boy, contains one of Toma€™s most covered songs, a€?The Last Thing On My Mind,a€? and a slew of others that found their way into many a folkiea€™s song-bag. The old bluesman was only three years from the end of his life, but was able to soak up the adoration of players and audiences in that time.
About a year later, someone sat on it and, as he writes, it was a€?Aloha, the ukulele.a€? Soon after, an aunt in Chicago gave him his first guitar, dug out of the back of a closet. His brother, two years older, had been instrumental in turning Greg on to the major rock acts of the day. However, a€?WOR was the first New York album-oriented rock-and-roll FM station,a€? he said.
In the early a€?70s, Greg was in his late teens when the work of John Prine and Steve Goodman made an impact. On their way out west, Greg and Richard stopped in Emporia, Kan., to visit a friend and wound up playing gigs in the area for about a year.
Then, after two years, although he was doing well at school, he felt antsy to move forward in his desire to a€?make records,a€? so he quit. Also during this time, Greg wrote a€?The Hearta€? with Tom Russell, who was living in New York then. If great writing, perfect recording and stellar performances are your thing, this is the guy for you.
However, a€?WOR was the first New York album-oriented rock-and-roll FM station,a€? he said.A  a€?We still have some psychedelic posters from WOR that my father did the lettering for,a€? he stated. Suddenly, a bomb planted in the rucksack by Shining Path guerrillas went off with the train still in the station, sending shrapnel outward, killing the German family and four others immediately. There was time to travel in those days, so when his friend suggested that fateful trip, Sam eagerly agreed. When his survival was assured, they finally did tendon implants and Sam began rehabilitation. I would write long pieces, word after word after word.a€? His writing kept improving, but it just wasna€™t good enough.
One night a rancher paid a visit and sang a cowboy song a€?Tying a Knot in the Devila€™s Tail.a€? It was a€?one more stepa€? in his growing love for folk music. Years later, he writes, with typically arch humor, that, down the road, he got to tell Burl, in person, a€?I just want to thank you for ruining my life.a€? He got no sympathy, he says. John played the Gaslight a number of times and Tom and others, lucky to be on the same bill, got to listen and absorb through many sets. One night a rancher paid a visit and sang a cowboy song a€?Tying a Knot in the Devila€™s Tail.a€? It was a€?one more stepa€?A  in his growing love for folk music. The WW I soldiers shouted greetings to each other and exchanged small gifts.A  The false report to headquarters in the last line, a€?We have met the enemy and he has been smashed!a€? also recalls that the opposing soldiers in WW I recognized their foea€™s humanity in spite of objections from their superiors. Sam was still alive, but the explosion severed the main artery and vein in his left thigh and he almost bled to death.
Later, after some much-deserved success, theya€™d find a house in East Hampton, Long Island where theya€™d live for 27 years, except for three years (1970-1973) spent living in England and touring Europe.
While ita€™s doubtful that much shared humanity was recognized by either side in a€?Nam, the common lot of all soldiers is certainly there in Toma€™s song.
It would take 17 reconstructive surgeries and a long time for the gestation to finish and fully emerge, but it did, from a life totally redirected. His left hand was still a mess and there was a cut tendon and a knuckle blown off the right. Toma€™s ability to write songs for children is a strong part of his repertoire and catalog. There are a few similar characteristics to the main figure in Suttree, but otherwise, ita€™s all Greg.
In addition, a€?Ireland,a€? included on his 1992 album Everywhere, according to a quote we saw somewhere, was written as a tribute to his wife. An operation in a local hospital saved his life, but he developed gangrene and was dying from the damage to his brain and kidneys.
When Sam toured Britain in support of Pretty World, he did a live slot on Harrisa€™ radio show, and told Harris how grateful he was for sending his career to a brand new level. While I was doing that, melodies would come and they would be like a cardinal, a very bright red bird that flies against the window, saying, a€?Pay attention to me.
He said: a€?I dona€™t know that you know how instrumental you are in my being here, not just in London, but wherever I am as a writer or a player.
He laughed and said, a€?That hand just went up all by itself, didna€™t it?a€? Sama€™s warmth and humor made it a special night.
The song captured the spirit of Ireland so well that Irish folk diva Maura Oa€™Connell covered it, and the song subsequently saw heavy rotation on Fordham Universitya€™s (WFUV) radio playlist a€” back then, this authora€™s only source of preferred music. It would be left-handed picking this time, since those fingers would never again finger frets. In an online interview, Greg is quoted: a€?I was desperate back then a€¦ I was living in a trailer park a€¦ We were just desperadoes with shitty jobs. A friend and I saw Greg play an inspiring set at the Mercury Lounge in the mid a€™90s and stopped to pay our respects afterward.
By the late a€™80s he had gotten a guitar, strung it upside down and learned to fret with his right hand. Sam added, a€?Not only that, ita€™s killing your favorite children.a€? Knowing what to take out is important. I was shocked.a€? Harris acknowledged how eager he was to hear someone Morlix had rhapsodized over, and subsequently, how much he loved Sama€™s work.
It was just different, or maybe it was just different for me, chasing the dream of making music. The power of a€?noa€? when I leave stuff out makes the power of a€?yesa€? much more compelling.

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